US foundation buys Hopi masks for $530K, returns them to tribes

Advocacy group and US Embassy had failed to block Paris sale of Hopi and Apache 'cultural property'

Auctioneer Alan Leroy during an auction in Paris of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes.
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty

The Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation has revealed it purchased a set of 24 Hopi and Apache masks at a controversial Paris auction and will return them to tribes in Arizona that had tried get the sale blocked.

After an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by lawyers for the advocacy group Survival International, who argued that the masks were the cultural property of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes, the Annenberg Foundation scooped up 24 of the masks “for the sole purpose of returning them to their rightful owners,” it said on Wednesday.

The philanthropic organization paid $530,000 when the items went under the hammer on Monday.

“As an artist, I was struck by the awesome power and beauty of these objects,” said the foundation’s director, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, who first thought of intervening after a similar sale of Native American art stirred controversy back in April. “But these are not trophies to have on one’s mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans.”

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, federally recognized Native American tribes are able to reclaim certain funerary, sacred or otherwise culturally important objects. As that law does not apply abroad, a French court ruled last week that EVE auction house in Paris could proceed with the sale.

After the legal challenge flopped, the U.S. Embassy in Paris lobbied for the suspension of the sale in a last-ditch effort — but to no avail.

Monday night's sale, which included 27 masks and a variety of other Native American artifacts, brought in $1.6 million in total.

Another one of the masks was purchased for nearly $18,000 by Survival International’s French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber. The remaining two masks were sold to unidentified bidders, and their fate is unknown.

The masks, some of which date back to the 18th century, are made of animal skins and other materials and worn by dancers during religious ceremonies. The Hopi consider them living beings and do not display them in public.

“This is a great day for not only the Hopi people but for the international community as a whole,” said Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader, in a statement provided by the foundation. “Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility. They simply cannot be put up for sale.”

The Annenberg foundation’s executive director, Leonard Aubi, told Al Jazeera that the purchase had been met with an outpouring of “gratitude and graciousness” from Hopi and Apache representatives, but noted that it was a "one-time thing."

Aubi also acknowledged the moral dilemma of participating in the sale.

“Could intervening have a boomerang effect? It does begin to crack open further questions about aiding and abetting this type of sale,” he said.

“We think we did the right thing," he added. "As for whether we’re directly or indirectly contributing to the issue, only time will tell.”

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